I am a great believer that becoming creatures of habit really does give us that competitive edge. To many that seems like an anathema – being a creature of habit sounds dull and boring. Being spontaneous, carefree, going where the spirit takes you sounds much more interesting than being a creature of habit! When we say that someone is a creature of habit it is very often not said in a complimentary fashion, there is an undertone of criticism or dismissiveness and very far removed from a perception of someone who has that competitive edge.
I disagree, to have that competitive edge, then habits, deeply ingrained as rituals, are critical to ongoing success.
When asked if we buy into personal development we would all say that definitely we are fully committed to our own personal growth – it would sound stupid to say different. But if that is the case then why are the following statements true, according to validated research:
• 95% of us who lose weight through dieting will put it back on again, and a large percentage will put more on than they lost.
• After suffering serious heart disease, only one in eight patients actually make any long lasting change to their diet or exercise regime.
• 25% of people give up on their New Years resolutions in week ONE! 60% will be abandoned within 6 months. On average we make the same New Years resolution ten times and never keep it.
• In businesses 70% of organizational changes committed to fail.
So, if we buy into personal development to give us that competitive edge, and my executive coaching business confirms to me that almost 100% do buy into it, then why do we fail so badly and what does it say about our willpower and self-discipline?
It is clear from these facts that if we have to rely totally upon our willpower then our chances of success, and achieving that competitive edge, are pretty limited. So, why is that?
I think we have a limited supply of willpower, not an unlimited supply as we are often led to believe. If we are trying to make significant change, which is necessary if we are trying to develop that competitive edge and peak performance, then having to dip into the reservoir of willpower every time is exhausting and will lead to failure.
The reason it is exhausting is that if we are relying on willpower then we have to consciously dip into that pool, and we just get tired having to try so hard.
We can go back to 1911 to get confirmation of this fact, when the brilliant mathematician Alfred North Whitehead said:
“It is a profoundly erroneous truism…..that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations, which we can perform without thinking”
So, what are “…operations, which we can perform without thinking”? In simple terms they are habits or rituals. Suddenly, it doesn’t sound so boring, does it?
Habits and rituals are things we do without having to think about them – they become automatic and instead of having to push ourselves to them, they pull us towards doing them. We have made them become part of our lives and we do them without having to think about them. This really supports the view that rivals and habits are critical to getting that all important competitive edge.
I think a great example of this is playing golf and where so many golfers, like myself, can really come unstuck. When I stand up to address the ball if I start to think about where are my hands, my shoulders, am I keeping still, am I swaying, am I turning properly (and far too often, I do have these thoughts!), then I am pretty guaranteed that I will hit a bad shot! Thinking makes the execution very flawed.
But, I hear you say, isn’t having rituals not restricting and shortchanging improvisation and creativity? Nonsense, improvisation only happens when you have become expert at something – the great musicians are amazing at improvisation but only because their skills are so deeply embedded through habitual practice – in other words, rituals!
In executive coaching sessions where the focus is on personal development and achieving peak performance and the all important competitive edge, I suggest that when it comes to creating rituals the first thing you need to do is to be extremely precise and specific. Why is that?
A piece of research found the following:
• When a group was asked to exercise once for just 20 minutes during the following week, not a massive request, only 29% did so.
• Another group was given the same task but were lectured on how important exercise was to their health – so a little motivation was added, the percentage rose to 39%. A bit of an improvement, but not great.
• But when a third group was asked to do the exercise at a designated time, on a particular day and in an agreed location, then the figure rose to 91% achievement.
So, what does this tell us? When we have created a ritual around the time we will exercise, it is in our diary for the days we will do it, and we know exactly where we will do it, then it will happen. If we have to think about it too much, we won’t. Going to the gym is a great example for all of us. If my ritual is to get my gear ready the night before, set the alarm for the time to get up and know where I am going, without having to make any decision, then I will go. If I have to think about any of these too long, I will procrastinate and the chances of me doing it will diminish greatly. Without this ritual, achieving competitive edge goes further and further away.
The second piece of advice I suggest in executive coaching to get that competitive edge is to shift our thinking away from what we are trying to stop doing and focus on what you are going to do. A good example of this is when you try to give up smoking. We all know that we need motivation to give up smoking. But when doing so if our focus is all the time on not smoking then all we are doing is increasing our desire to do so. We must shift our focus to what we are going to do, not what we are not going to do. The old line that it is easier to avoid temptation than resist it is so true. So, in this case instead of focusing on smoking, focus on drinking water, eating fruit, chewing gum or whatever it is. You know that you will have cravings, so plan for it and have your plan B in place. Sportspeople, who I think are great examples to model behavior on when it comes to gaining competitive edge, will always say not to focus on what you don’t want to do – focus on the result you want. A client of mine, who really does walk the talk when it comes to getting and maintaining that competitive edge, always says that when she wants to lose weight, she does not focus on the weight loss, but looking good in her jeans! Her focus is on the result, not what she does not eat to lose weight.
So, competitive edge is achieved with rituals – I truly believe that but I would like to hear your views. They are not boring and dull, they lead to peak performance and great personal growth.